September 08, 2022
Living History for a KO Teacher
Upper School history teacher Steph Sperber’s professional development this summer was a blast from the past as she visited Virginia for a one-week intensive at the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute with 20 other teachers from around the country, studying the development of the American identity from 1607 through the Civil War.
The trip encompassed visiting Jamestown archeological sites and museums, including an interactive recreation of the Powhatan Paspahegh Town, the battlefields at Yorktown, and speaking with historians at each site as well as exploring Colonial Williamsburg itself. For Sperber, place-based learning is about recognizing the complexity of teaching history and telling a full story – embracing the parts that evoke pride and critically analyzing the parts that disappoint. “While I felt a certain thrill as a history teacher standing in the same spot as the first English men who set foot in North America, I also learned about the life of Angela, who was enslaved and brought to Jamestown in 1619 when the settlers conspired to hijack a Dutch ship and re-route it to Virginia, thus bringing the first enslaved Africans to North America.” Researchers have uncovered this new information about Angela’s life by using archeology and triangulating primary sources. The teachers were given a chance to discuss how museums and visitors address this new information and how the importance of public history is changing.
The mission of the institute is to cultivate better teachers and to help them enjoy the act of teaching history. During the week, spaces were created for approaching difficult or controversial subject matter. Sperber said that depending on the location of where the teacher taught impacted the openness to taking on challenging topics. “I’m lucky my colleagues and students crave a well-rounded and full narrative of our country’s past. I’m encouraged to dive deep into important moments and themes. There are a lot of teachers who struggle with how to phrase things while honoring the truth of the past and those peoples’ realities.” The teachers were introduced to actor-historians who portrayed “Nation Builders” such as James Madison and Nat Turner, as well as actors who created their own characters based on their years of research. The stories of women, indigenous peoples, and those who were enslaved were highlighted during the week as well as more mainstream narratives. “Stories are what we are made of,” Sperber said. “We are creatures who, if we don’t understand our past, don’t understand who we are. We exist because of the choices they had and made. We cannot have the thrill of declaring independence if we do not also acknowledge who was excluded from that freedom.”
Sperber also traveled further south to Georgia, where she spent a week learning about the history and culture of the Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears through a grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities. After daily lectures from local and visiting professors, the middle and high school teachers traveled to significant landmarks in local indigenous history: the Etowah Mounds to learn about Mississippian culture; New Echota, the capital of the Cherokee Nation where the now-infamous treaty was signed; the Major Ridge House where the treaty party met and were ultimately assassinated for their role in the removal decision. “By the 1830s, a complex relationship existed between the white settlers and the peoples of the Cherokee and Creek nations. Some Cherokee had acculturated into the settler lifestyle, owning plantations and enslaved people. I was not expecting to visit a plantation once owned by a powerful Cherokee chief, and then when he was forced to leave the US military took it over and continued the plantation so they could profit.” Sperber said that one thing she took from both of her summer experiences was that the experience of American Indians is not a monolith.
Once again, Sperber was asked to discuss with her fellow teachers how best to explain these complexities to students, who often do not have a full week of immersive place-based experiences to tackle such complicated histories. “This year, I plan on bringing many more indigenous voices into my courses. With the help of the Harvard Case Method Institute, this November I plan on spending a week looking at the decisions, promises, and lies that brought the US and the Cherokee Nation to sign the Treaty of New Echota.” Sperber also has plans to grow a traditional Three Sisters Garden in her KO plot next spring, inspired by the gardens that the American Indian Initiative at Colonial Williamsburg maintains.
For KO teachers, lifelong learning is the name of the game. “When I travel and spend my summer in these programs, I get to be immersed in real history with diverse educators. These experiences shift my own perspective. I wake up each morning grateful that I get to teach my students, and my summer work helps me hone my craft. I want kids to love learning. I want them to take something from history and say, ‘I can see how we got here, and how things in the past impact my world today.’”